On top of the mountain;Subject of the Week - Geography;Interview;Wendy Morgan

27th March 1998 at 00:00
The president of the Geographical Association's passion for her subject was fired by childhood holidays. Nearly half a century on, her enthusiasm is undimmed and those ideas just keep on coming. Geraldine Brennan meets Wendy Morgan

When Wendy Morgan was preparing to sit her geography O-level in the 1950s, her father didn't buy her a revision guide. "He realised that I had never seen a mountain, because we lived on the outskirts of London, so he whisked me up to the Peak District on a train one Saturday," she recalls.

Mrs Morgan's father died recently, but her passion for places at home and away is part of his legacy. "Dad was an engineer, not an educationist, but he had a very wide interest in places he'd been to and fantastic knowledge. I grew up in the war, and people didn't travel about much, but he remembered everywhere he'd ever been."

The president of the Geographical Association and a key architect of primary geography attributes her belief in the subject to the influence of both her parents - her mother was a botany teacher who had also trained in geology. "The combination of their different approaches made me a geographer. Now I see the excitement in it. There's so much opportunity for fieldwork, taking children outside. You can do a huge amount inside the school grounds. Then there's another wonderful dimension just beyond the school gates, then the excitement of bringing places overseas close to home."

She remembers the thrill of her first post-war family trip abroad in 1951, sailing on Dutch canals and rivers; two years later she made a solo visit to Paris, where she stayed with a "very sophisticated family" and got to grips with the city alone. This "gave me a taste for exploring London when I got back".

It is 10 years since Mrs Morgan took early retirement from a primary headship in Suffolk to campaign through the GA for high-quality primary geography. She was the only primary teacher on the national curriculum geography working group, was instrumental in doubling the primary membership of the GA, and launched its influential journal, Primary Geographer, which she edited until 1995.

As a freelance lecturer and consultant she also provided the training and inspiration that non-specialists needed to break new ground in the subject, including three years at Homerton College, Cambridge.

"I've made it my crusade to try to help teachers with no background in geography, who may have given it up at 14, who were at first horrified by the demands of the curriculum," she says. There was little advice available during her own 27 years in the classroom: "I relied heavily on the association for support."

As well as travelling around the country to take in-service training and being inundated with committee work over the past decade, she has also thrown herself into producing curriculum materials for Ginn, Cambridge University Press and the GA, becoming a keen photographer along the way.

The key stage 2 materials on the Caribbean island of St Lucia, on which she collaborated with Vincent Bunce of the development education charity Worldaware, is now used in half of all British primary schools. Her St Lucia materials for key stage 1, which have not yet found a publisher, won a Commonwealth Institute Centenary Award. Another GAWorldaware project on Tocuaro, a village in Mexico, is under way.

All this left little time for her subsidiary retirement plan of exploring the wilds of East Anglia with her husband Alan, an insurance inspector. But the reward for her efforts is that "we've reached the point where primary geography has taken root, expertise is being built up, excellent resources are being produced and our secondary colleagues are more aware of what we're doing".

Wendy Morgan could have been expected to despair, therefore, at David Blunkett's recent proposal that from September primary schools should not have to teach the full geography curriculum. Indeed, the GA initially met the announcement with "incredulity and outrage" (TES, January 30), but Mrs Morgan now hopes that the long-term effect might be to produce more of the right kind of primary work.

"The freedom not to have to follow the programmes of study in quite as much detail does leave teachers more scope to use their flair and creativity and to teach as they see best. I'm optimistic that we can get the message across that geography has an enormous role to play and its place in the curriculum is vital. Its role in literacy, for example, is so important."

She is awaiting the verdict on the GA's bid for money from the Millennium Fund to set up Developing Your Environment, which will involve 8,000 children and adults researching their local environment and its future. This project, and plans to appoint a chief executive of the association from next January, have been the major tasks during her presidential year, which runs until September. Then there is a year to serve as past president. After this, she swears, she plans to retire from retirement.

The Geographical Association's annual conference will be held at Leeds University on April 15-17.Primary day is April 15. Details from the GA: 0114 296 0088

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